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How calling for “authenticity” can be a burden

By Kim Pham

Fun fact: we don't use the word "authentic" to ever describe what we do! It's okay if you do, but here's some of our thinking:

We believe that the term “authentic” has become a burden that largely BIPOC chefs + cuisines must bear

For so long, this word has been used to describe "good" food, worthy of our attention, that arose from communities of color.

However, this standard always feels coupled with very specific ideas of how this food should taste, look, and cost 💸

Time and time again, Western cuisines are given space to be many things – authentic, upscale, fusion, nouveau, etc. – while cuisine from BIPOCs have to stay restricted to a certain view (cheap / lowbrow / street) to qualify as “authentic" 🤔 Our chefs are hardly given the same space + freedom to innovate as their white counterparts. Thus, representation can stagnate when we’re only given a handful of ways to exist.

What’s interesting: the call for “authenticity” actually arose from a backlash against “fusion” food.

In the early 2000s, consumers sought cuisine that felt more meaningful than “fusion,” which the LA Times considered to be *the* culinary buzzword of the 90s

This prized standard of “authenticity” also coincided with increasing internet adoption. Suddenly on chatrooms, YouTube channels, and apps like Foursquare + Yelp, anyone could become an expert on “authenticity.”

This quest for authenticity has been tied to its proximity to whiteness:

In 2019, Eater NY found that Yelp reviewers associated “authenticity” at restaurants serving European cuisine with white tablecloths, elegance, + an overall positive dining experience.

Whereas, “authenticity” at non-European restaurants was tied to cheap food, dirty decor, and harried service 🥴 What does this say about how we value non-Western cuisines + cultures?

In addition to restricting BIPOC food, “authenticity” is an ambiguous + unfair concept.

How do we decide what is or isn’t “authentic”? And who is gatekeeping what is or isn’t “authentic”?

⚠️ Yes, this also means taking a look at how our own communities use this term.

When we ask for “authenticity,” we often draw on nostalgia + memories:

     ● “That’s not like my dad’s cooking!”

     ● “Love that this tastes like home!”

     ● “I grew up on $10 bowls of phở!”

          This can create a standard that changes person-to-person -- an ever-moving target that sets us all up to fail.

          The dialogue around “authenticity” in food is never black + white.

          👎🏽 Do not mistake: we are NOT advocating for bastardized rip-offs created to capitalize on BIPOC culture + cuisine, without compensating or truly paying homage to either (*cough* Mahjong Line debacle *cough*)

          👍🏽 However, when you do call for “authenticity,” we ask that you examine:

               ● The POV that you center around

               ● What power structures are at play + who is profiting

               ● If this leaves room for creativity + innovation for BIPOC chefs

              Thanks for engaging with us on this nuanced conversation 🙏🏽

              Here are some related thought starters that we’re musing on (+ we hope that you’ll join us):

                   ● “Inauthentic” food that comes from a place of survival / assimilation

                   ● No cuisine is static → what is respectful innovation + interpretation?

                   ● How privilege + access play into if something is considered appropriation

                   ● How + where do our third-culture experiences as POCs fit within “authenticity”?

              Sources + other helpful reads below:

                   ● Fusion Food by Charles Perry (LA Times)

                   ● Why “Authentic” Food is Bullshit by Kevin Alexander (Thrillist)

                   ● What Does “Authenticity” in Food Mean in 2019? by Jaya Saxena (Eater)

                   ● Cuisines Mastered as Acquired Tastes by Francis Lam (NY Times)

                   ● Let’s Call It Assimilation Food by Soleil Ho (TASTE)

                   ● I’m from a Mexican family. Stop expecting me to eat ‘authentic’ food. by John Paul Brammer (Washington Post)

                   ● ‘Always Be My Maybe’ and the Trap of ‘Authentic’ Cooking by Jenny Zhang (Eater)

                   ● Yelp Reviewers’ Authenticity Fetish is White Supremacy in Action by Sara Kay (Eater)

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